Colin Delany March 18, 2009

GM’s Christopher Barger on Social Media and Corporate Communications in a Networked World

When you’re the director of social media for General Motors, you have a political job whether you expect it or not. At an SXSW panel on the “Digital Tsunami” that brews up around breaking news events, GM’s Christopher Barger demonstrated a complex understanding of how the explosion of voices and channels on the internet has changed the way corporations need to communicate, particularly at a time when GM’s very survival depends on developments in the political world.

Some of his major points:

  • For brands, the opportunity now is to “fix” the news — not to try to manage or control it, but to provide perspective, information and (above all) engagement. For instance, when news breaks, the company should reach out directly to bloggers, commenters and twitterers to say, “okay, this is what you’ve seen, what questions can I answer for you?”
  • Instead of a traditional one-to-many approach, this new model is one-on-one — sending out press releases or getting journalists into a room for a press conference just won’t cut it for brand communicators. In a sense, the “audience” has become an equal player, and corporate communicators will be judged on how much and how quickly they can help its members process information quickly.
  • The definition of being “wrong” has changed as well: in the old days it probably meant that you were going off message, but now it’s more likely to involve actual factual errors (if all you’re putting out is a spun message, you’re probably not even in the game). And since official spokespeople aren’t likely to be the only people interacting with the public in a networked world (whether their bosses are happy about it or not), every employee is a potential public representative for the brand. In response, corporations need to ramp up their internal information distribution networks to make sure that employees at all levels both understand what’s going on and know how to talk about it with outsiders. Errors can spread very fast online.
  • In a sense, every news event becomes a Customer Relations Management event, and if you provide information in a candid and transparent way, it shows people that you’re trying to engage them as people or as customers.
  • Blog posts can drive traditional media. As an example, Barger noted the media frenzy around the release of an auditor’s report questioning GM’s ability to survive — a question the company had also been bringing up both internally and externally for months — and how a quickly published post about the issue on the corporate blog ended up cited in major media outlets almost immediately.

As an example of the kind of direct engagement he’s prescribing, Barger said that his staff had stayed on Twitter until midnight on the day that the auto bailout plan hit the press, engaging both journalists and citizens online. For instance, they got in touch directly with one twitterer who was hammering them relentlessly, even arranging for her to speak with GM executives on the phone. The result? For her, GM became a collection of people trying to solve a problem rather than a faceless corporate monolith, and she ended up writing a blog post about the bailout that was essentially neutral. Multiply by hundreds of contacts with online influencers, and you have a way to “fix” a story on the fly. More expressly political communicators can and should learn from this approach — as should other corporate communicators whose jobs ultimately depend on public sentiment in a political environment.

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